After an unprecedented, dirty, presidential election campaign in Austria and ahead of the 2017 parliamentary elections in Germany, politicians in both countries are increasingly on the defensive against what they see as a dangerous surge in fake news and incitement on social media.
Last week, an Austrian court placed a preliminary injunction on Facebook's European branch, forcing it to block posts targeting Green Party Chairwoman Eva Glawischnig. The posts, which appeared to have been spread via a fake profile, described Glawischnig as a “lousy traitor of the people” and a “corrupt klutz.”
“The court held the opinion that the spreading of untrue statements can never be covered by freedom of speech,” spokesman Alexander Schmidt said.
The posts in question were blocked only in Austria and can still be accessed in other European countries, but Glawischnig's attorney deemed the verdict a success. “I think that the floodgates have been opened. Many people have now seen that there are options and will follow our example,” Maria Windhager said, adding that she was looking at ways to block the content in Germany, as well.
A Facebook spokeswoman declined to comment, citing “ongoing legal procedures.”
The insults directed at Glawischnig appeared to have been spread via the same fake profile that was used to circulate false rumors during the run-up to Austria's presidential vote this month, including that Alexander van der Bellen — who eventually won the election — was suffering from cancer and dementia. In what seemed like an echo of the U.S. presidential race, Van der Bellen, who is close to the Green Party, was forced to publish his health records to dispel the rumors.
In Germany, politicians across the political spectrum reacted with alarm at reports about alleged interference by Russian hackers in the recent U.S. election, warning of the likelihood of a similar scenario in their country. Several called for tougher laws to prevent the spread of fake news on social media. “Deliberate disinformation to destabilize a state should be made punishable,” Patrick Sensburg, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, told the Funke media group this week.
German Green Party politician Renate Künast announced last week that she was going to take legal action against various Facebook users who had circulated a fabricated quote suggesting that Künast had partly defended an Afghan teenager suspected in the rape and killing of a young woman. “The traumatized young refugee did kill, but one has to help him now either way,” the post read, falsely claiming that Künast had made the statement in an interview with the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Merkel's Social Democratic coalition partners this week urged all parties to voluntarily abstain from using social media to manipulate the upcoming elections. Their chairman and deputy chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, tweeted on Monday: “We . . . are calling on democrats to close their ranks against means such as manipulative 'social bots' and to fight 'fake news' together!”
But some commentators warned about taking the fight against fake news too far. Author Sascha Lobo wrote in an editorial published by the Spiegel Online news website on Wednesday: “The line between silly propaganda and welcome formation of political opinion can hardly be defined by legal terms but must be the subject of constant debates. Laws to that end would cause significant (collateral) damage in a liberal legal state.”
With elections in Germany and possible early parliamentary elections in Austria next year, the controversy over potential limits on the freedom of speech and the scourge of fake news is likely to continue.